Don’t hunt and think

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Let’s talk about hunting philosophy. Let’s use, as a jumping-off point, a piece on yesterday’s New York Times op-ed page by a man named Seamus McGraw. You can read it for yourself, but if you’re not inclined, I can pass along the important bits. The piece is a justification both of deer hunting, and of using a flintlock to do it.

On deer hunting itself, McGraw says that responsibility to keep the deer population in check, in the absence of virtually all wild predators, falls to humans and he’s doing his part. I think that’s perfectly reasonable, but he goes on to justify using his flintlock. He admits that it’s unreliable and difficult to use, and that it sometimes fails altogether. He admits that it’s more likely to wound than a modern weapon, and tells a story of wounding a deer and having to kill her with knife.

Why use it? Here’s why:

[W]hen I took up hunting, I eschewed all the technological gadgets designed to give modern hunters an extra edge over their prey. I like to believe that there’s something primitive and existential about the art of hunting, and that somehow, stripping the act of hunting to its basics makes it purer.

There you have it. Mr. McGraw wounded a deer in the name of purity. He wanted to give that poor deer a sporting chance. Never mind that, if he really wanted primitive and existential he would have dispensed with the firearm altogether and gone out with a pointy stick.

What he really wanted to do was philosophize. He wanted to have his venison, but also to make it clear that his thoughtfulness sets him apart from his fellow hunters, those Neanderthals who use things like rifles that make a clean kill easier and more likely.

The more time I spend in the woods with a gun, the more I think that hunting and philosophy don’t mix. Recently, my friend Tovar at A Mindful Carnivore wrote a post called, “Hunting philosophies in ten words or less,” I found that all I had to say on the subject fit into five: Hunt, with care, to eat.

Okay, it’s not literally all I have to say on the subject, but it’s everything important, and certainly everything that could be called “philosophy.” I’ll take a life only if it sustains me (because I eat the animal or because the animal is a threat to what I’m planning to eat or, ideally, both), and I’ll take it in such a way as to minimize its suffering as best I can.

The only ancillary issue worth mentioning is which animals I’ll kill. Because hunting isn’t a necessity for me, I prefer to hunt overpopulated, non-endangered animals, but I’ll take the last dodo if it stands between me and starvation.

While McGraw claims that using a flintlock makes hunting more primitive, I’ll go out on a limb and posit that what he really likes is that it makes it less primitive. It gives him a reason to engage his higher faculties, and it means he has enough to say about it to get himself on the Times Op-Ed page. It means that hunting is a whole-man, cerebral pursuit. So what if a doe dies a slow death?

And that’s what irritates me about so much hunting philosophy. It’s narcissism masquerading as concern for the purity of the hunt. The idea of “fair chase” is at the heart of most of it; it’s supposed to be about giving the animal a sporting chance but is really about making the hunter feel better about himself because the hunt was more challenging. The sense of accomplishment is seriously lessened if you take a deer over bait, but the deer who dies instantly at your corn feeder has it way better than the one you wound and track through the woods for hours.

McGraw’s doe would have taken the Neanderthal with the rifle, any day, even if it meant she wouldn’t have made the Times op-ed page.

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Comments

  1. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman that I fail to understand the concept of “sporting.” It is often justified as being “natural” and “primitive,” but in reality if seems like something some British dudes in the 1800s invented. Hunting is not a sport for me, it’s simply a way to acquire food. If you look at the real hunting methods of foraging tribes, they are often quite “unsporting” from a Western perspective, using things like nets and poisoned arrows. It’s not a game between man or deer. That battle was already lost in the stone age when human encephalization quotient outpaced that of follow mammals. The brain is our ultimate weapon, though it seems like these sort of hunters dispense with that too.

    As far as I’m concerned, this who faux-primitive sporting culture gives the rest of us a bad name.

  2. Well, IF it is more likely to wound than kill, it is because of the holder. A properly used flintlock is incredibly effective at 100 yards. I would argue that it is more likely to force the hunter to slow down and take proper aim.

    When you know you only get one shot, you tend to be more careful. At least that is true of everyone I have with while using black powder guns.

    But I guess if I found out about someone who thought he or she could take pot-shots – with any kind of gun – there is no way I would hunt with them. Or, if I did I, would be so damned preachy they would not want to hunt with me for long.

    Let’s hope this idiot is the exception. Over the years I have seen a consistent improvement in hunting ethics, in fact, most hunters I have seen in the last few years are pretty careful.

    • OK, I had to read his article.

      “notoriously balky and inaccurate”?!?

      This guy needs to spend some time at the range. Seriously?! He does not know what he is talking about…

      • Steve, I had the feeling he was using a gun that was actually from the 1800s. Modern black-powder guns are, as you point out, more deadly than many guns — certainly more than the shotguns we’re required to use here in Massachusetts. Large caliber buys a lot of deadliness. My issue isn’t’ with black-powder hunting in general, but with his “balky and inaccurate” weapon in particular.

      • Hoosierbuck says:

        I agree with Tamar, and Steve. If your flinty is balky, clean and maintain it properly. The men who depended on flintlocks to keep them alive wouldn’t tolerate an unreliable weapon, neither should we. If it isn’t accurate, that’s a shooter problem. Become a better shot and find a load the gun likes. If you need to feel like more of a man, see a therapist, don’t take it out on the deer, they didn’t make you inadequate or maladjusted. /end of sermon.

  3. *applause*

  4. Maybe it’s because I spent a lot of time in the 80s hanging out with doctrinaire feminists, but I was immediately struck with the use of McGraw’s repeated use of the term “art” to refer to hunting. The feminist line used to be (perhaps still is) that women have always tried to keep men out of trouble by encouraging them to mystify and glorify male pursuits. (“Go play with the sacred flutes, honey.”) It reminds me of the bumper sticker: “If men got pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” Anyway, I guess it’s a guy thing, we just don’t understand.

  5. I just read the article. Now I’m pissed, too. A great post, and I agree with nearly all you’ve written. Also with the comments already coming in.

    I’d argue, however, that it’s OK to hunt and think. I just think Mr. McGraw needs to think a little harder and more clearly.

    Something like this could happen to any hunter, no matter how careful. But not all of us would rationalize what happened, and even boast of it, in the New York Times. He writes “But those antique weapons also carry with them an antique sense of responsibility….” And yet his own description of events would suggest that his actions didn’t always live up those fine words.

    Now I wasn’t there, and I can only go by his description. But he’s shooting at dusk, the deer is already on high alert even before he starts fumbling around, and when he finally pulls the trigger he’s surprised at what happens next. The surprise suggests he hasn’t been practicing very often with his beloved flintlock. “In the smoke and confusion,” he can’t tell where he hit the deer, or whether he hit it at all.

    Even when properly maintained, these guns can be unreliable in wet weather. McGraw doesn’t mention rain or snow, so I don’t know what was going on with two misfires in a row. And I don’t know about “balky.” But from what I’ve read, these “ancient guns” aren’t “notoriously inaccurate.” Some were quite accurate at moderate ranges, as are most modern replicas.

    If for whatever reason someone does choose to use a more primitive weapon, whether flintlock, longbow, or atlatl, they do indeed have an extra responsibility to make sure they’re shooting within their limits. Suppose a skilled archer using a longbow is shooting at a deer standing broadside 10 yards away. We could probably agree they’re more resonsible than a gun hunter who never practices and is shooting offhand at a running deer 150 yards away. So I wouldn’t make a blanket statement that hunters who choose are flintlock or longbow are being irresponsible.

    I have to admit, though, that I’ve made a different choice. I own a modern muzzleloader that’s as accurate and effective as a centerfire rifle at ranges out to 150 yards. It’s actually designed to be used with smokeless powder, and eventually I’ll probably mount a scope on it. I haven’t shot a deer with it yet, but when I do it will be an effective tool for the job. If I someday take up bowhunting, I’ll probably go modern there, too. In neither case will I feel like I’m cheating.

    And while that whole fair chase thing can sometimes seem arbitrary, and more a matter of aesthetics than ethics, I’d argue that the concept still has value. Most people would agree, for example, that paying to shoot a large deer in a small pen doesn’t feel quite like hunting. It’s not that shooting a cow, pig, or even a deer in its pen before butchering it is exactly—by the standards of your average non-vegan American, at least—immoral or wrong. But it’s not hunting.

    Other questions, like the baiting you mentioned, are less simple.

  6. I know you hunters aren’t supposed to drink while you hunt, but is it OK if *I* drink while you philosophize?

  7. All right. I have heaped scorn on hunting philosophy several times without saying why. It is offered seriously, and I suppose it should be answered seriously.

    People hunt because it is fun. Stalking and killing animals is about as deeply wired as any human behavior is, far more than, say, language. Even people who do not hunt often engage in substitutes, like paintball or first-person shooters. People make up rules about hunting, like “fair chase,” because it is more fun to play when there are rules.

    Civilized people do not hunt for food in the forest. Civilized people hunt for food at the grocery store. It may contribute to the fun to eat what you kill, but the point remains the stalking and the killing, not the eating.

    If you are chasing an animal through the woods with a gun, its welfare does not rank too high on your list of priorities. The economists call this revealed preference. You do not want to wound the deer because that is sloppy work, and it is more fun to do a thing well than to do it badly. That is the sum of hunting philosophy.

    Everything else — the New York Times op-ed and my sister’s post alike — exists to draw status distinctions among hunters themselves. Those who eat what they kill sneer at the big-game hunters, who merely hang trophies on the wall, while the big-game hunters sneer at the eaters because their prey is not dangerous. Those who hunt with bows or flintlocks sneer at the rifle hunters because their pursuit is more “elemental,” while the rifle hunters sneer in turn at the primitives, who inflict “needless” (as if anything about recreational hunting were “needful”) pain on their prey. I can’t speak for the rest of you, but I got more than my fill of all this from the collected works of Hemingway.

    • Aaron, I respectfully disagree (and I mean respectfully, i’ve heard only intimidating things about your brilliance and ability to debate).

      I think shopping in a grocery store is the opposite of civilized, but then, it depends on your definition of civilized. A civilized society, for me, is one in which we form relationships and can find compassion for others. I would extend that to most living creatures. We all interpret that differently- I no longer find veganism neccesary to sustain that idea. Infact, I find it flies in the face of it. There’s a cycle afoot, and I participate in it.

      But my participation in that cycle is the point. Shopping at a grocery store is the antithesis of participation… its separation. We no longer see chicken, deconstructed and saran wrapped as part of a living, breathing thing that had to exist for us to eat it. Your point is mostly about hunting, and I don’t find hunting to be essential. We can raise animals humanely and ensure they die humanely as well… Perhaps this is an argument of semantics- farming vs hunting.

      • Lisa Petrie says:

        If there had been a “Like” button beneath your post, Amanda, I would’ve pushed it.

        🙂

        I do think that hunting is “essential” for some people, however. My brother raised his five kids on wild game and fish, and it certainly helped stretch their food budget.

        But I do like what you say about shopping in the grocery store sometimes being the opposite of civilized. It really feels that way sometimes. I remember when my son was very young — he made the comment that, “You know, mom. The only way it’s really fair to eat meat is if you hunt it down and kill it with your own hands.” In his own way, I think he was saying what you’re saying here — that if we want to eat meat (or anything, really), we have a responsibility to actively participate in that cycle of life.

    • I don’t think it’s much fun myself. It’s expensive, time consuming, and incredibly unpleasant at times. But it’s a way of harvesting sustainable meat with minimal impact to my land.

      • Overall, I agree, Melissa. My first years of hunting were particularly “expensive, time consuming, and incredibly unpleasant at times.”

        There are elements I do enjoy and in which I find meaning, but “fun” isn’t a word that comes to mind. Nor, for that matter, is it often “exciting.”

        • Yes, I have put in so many hours and so much money and I’ve only gotten a couple of rabbits. I didn’t get a deer this year. But I have some family members who inspire me because they get all their animal protein this way, which is important for them since a lot of them are low-income. They told me that after a few years the return for every hour starts to really make it worth it, particularly if you have your own landscape that you are shaping to nourish and attract wildlife.

          • The hours of sitting in the freezing cold not seeing deer are neither fun nor exciting. But hearing the chip-chip-chip of deer through leaves, and seeing an actual, geniune whitetail makes up for it. As for shooting one, I couldn’t tell you, not having yet had a shot I had confidence in.

  8. There’s a lot here. I’m going to start with Aaron because he gets down to first principles.

    “People hunt because it is fun,” isn’t exactly accurate, but if you subsitute “exciting” for “fun” I think you’re very close. If there were no enjoyment in it, no one would do it. (And you’re exactly right that people subscribe to “fair chase” because it ups the excitement level.) But we still need a moral justification for taking a life. There are all kinds of things that are fun that we don’t do because they’re wrong — cheat on our spouses, say.

    Had I been a stickler for accuracy, I would have said, “Don’t hunt and think … much,” because I do believe we need a moral justification for taking a life. A trophy isn’t one. A meal is. And that’s my first principle: it is okay to hunt (and, yes, enjoy all the excitement that comes with it) in order to feed myself and my family. The only other principle is inflict minimum suffering. Then stop thinking.

    (Amanda, don’t overestimate my brother’s brilliance or debating skill. I exaggerate in the interest of world peace.)

    Melissa, I think that’s exactly right. People who had to hunt to eat would laugh at us for having this discussion.

    Steve and HB, Thanks for weighing in — you guys know much more about flintlocks than I do.

    And Kate, I appreciate the moral support.

    Mom — So that’s McGraw’s problem, eh? He’s been victimized by feminists. I can see it.

    Al — I think we agree on this. Wounding can happen to the most careful of hunters; the question is what steps you take to avoid it. I don’t think McGraw took adequate steps, but there are other flintlock hunters who do.

    There are also hunters who choose weapons or strategies that make hunting harder, yet still take only shots that they have confidence in — they just set themselves up so those shots are harder to come by. I have no problem with that, and it’s hard to see how anyone could. Fair chase becomes a problem when it encourages hunters to take less probable shots because those are the only shots that present themselves.

    Shooting an animal in a pen isn’t, I don’t think, hunting. You get no disagreement from me. And we can have the baiting discussion another day.

    • Hunting not fun?

      I don’t think I have ever laughed so hard as when a supposedly ‘stupid’ Merriam’s Turkey looked over a boulder at me in curiosity. I had called it in for well over a mile in the Black Hills, but in the end, he made me look like a fool.

      Some of the funniest moments in my life were at 4 am, when the air is thin and a buddy will say or do something as we are setting out decoy.

      Similarly, the joy of watching a kid carefully take his or her first rabbit or deer – cleanly – then showing them how to dress and care for the meat is only passed by watching them proudly tell their parents about it afterward.

  9. Like Melissa, and like Holly who just posted on “sluicing” ducks at NorCal Cazadora, I’m not interested in abiding by the rules of “sport.”

    Like Al, I don’t have a problem with any particular kind of gun or bow. No matter the weapon, making a quick kill depends on the hunter knowing his or own limitations and the weapon’s limitations, and being able to judge the situation accurately. Personally, I mostly hunt with a modern scoped rifle. I bowhunt tentatively, have never taken a deer with an arrow, and switched from longbow to compound because I didn’t feel confident in my abilities with the former: one clean miss was enough for me. My uncle hunts almost exclusively with a caplock blackpowder rifle; he maintains it well, restricts himself to short-range shots at still or slow-moving deer, and almost always kills swiftly with that first shot.

  10. I read this back on Christmas, and immediately googled Pennsylvania hunting rules. I guess they have a primitive flintlock season where you have to use guns the same as in existence at some time way back when. (1830s is my guess) Has to have a rock striking metal to fire it. I’ve been with people who have to hunt this way, no other fire arm, and there is some delay while the whole thing goes off.

    I think the season in Pennsylvania might well be a good way for people who need a deer to go get one, assuming they have one of those antiques hanging around.

    I didn’t understand the part about him wounding and having to kill the deer with a knife. What good is that? Yuck! Good way to get kicked.

    I think fair chase isn’t fair for the animal but fair for other hunters. Others have the opportunity to get game. That’s why it’s called hunting.

  11. Its perfectly OK to hunt and think…

    McGraw was simply looking for something ‘edgy’ to write in the abscence of something more meaningful to say. I am sure he can acknowledge that if his goal was to eschew all technology he would be toting a stick bow, which I am sure is legal in his juristiction.

    I can never fathom the conflation between ethical purity and tool choice. Even with modern rifles you can still set yourself the goal of say a sub 50 yard shot on foot. Hunting ethics are a function of personal integrity, not necessarily tool choice.

    Conscientious hunting is about anticipation, preparation, learning, ecological knowledge, revereance and hunting skill, not arbitary material limits that apparently thrust you automaticially into the realm of being an uber-predator.

    I agree with Somsai, tool legistlation is (was) about limiting hunter success in high pressure areas as a conservation measure to ensure that success is reduced, its got nothing to do with holier-than-thou’s.

  12. I don’t think killing a prey animal requires moral justification. It seems to me like asking a hawk to ‘justify’ killing a squirrel. I think humans are predators. Some of us embrace that evolutionary heritage, and some of us don’t, but I think the world would be a better place if we could all at least acknowledge it.

    That’s a big deal to me. I don’t think we can improve, either as people or as cultures, unless we can first acknowledge what we are at the biological level.

    I also think the world would be a better place if every person that wanted to eat meat was required to kill and butcher an animal every once in awhile. I think a lot of our problems stem from the fact that so many of us live in an insulated little bubble – completely protected from all the ugly and unpleasant things that are required to sustan life.

    Now, when it comes to hunting, I have some standards I’ve developed that I’m comfortable with. I won’t break the law. I won’t hunt with a rifle that’s less than .308 (or 7.62mm). I won’t hunt with a bow that’s less than a 60-pound draw. I don’t use crossbows. I don’t hunt bear. I don’t hunt with dogs. I wait for the clean shot, and if that means it gets away, then so be it. I eat what I kill.

    But you know what? I could assemble a group of friends, people I respect and admire, who could argue the opposite side of every one of those points. Some of them would say my recurve bow (as opposed to a compound) is evidence of my hypocrisy, and my desire to give the deer a ‘sporting chance’.

    They might even be right. They might be right when they say that my laundry list of things I won’t do is completely absurd, or wrong-headed, or elitist. I dunno. They could make the most compelling case imaginable, and it wouldn’t change my list, so I guess it doesn’t matter if they’re right or not.

    I suppose the point (I had to come to one eventually) would be that I have my things I won’t do, and other people have completely different lists. It’s not place to judge them for that. In fact, approval or rejection seems irrelevant.

  13. Somsai — We have black powder season here in Massachusetts, too, and I know it’s in several other states as well. We’ve actually thought about getting a gun so we can hunt it, but I’m waiting until I have some success with shotguns or rifles.

    Brian — I think that pretty much sums it up — ethics and tool choice have nothing to do with each other. What ethics is obviously varies from hunter to hunter — mine are pretty simple — but it’s really hard to see how an unreliable gun enters into the picture.

    Ken — I’ll disagree with you on having to justify taking a prey animal. Humans are unique in the animal world in that we’re the only ones with the capacity for moral reasoning (I know there are studies of a sense of fairness among higher primates and dolphins, but I’m talking about something more sophisticated), and I do believe we are obligated to justify our behavior in moral terms. There are all kinds of behavior that are our evolutionary inheritance (waging war, raping women, killing the halt and the lame), and that other species do, that we either don’t do or only do in specific circumstances. As it happens, I think killing animals for prey is morally acceptable, but I have to ask the question.

    As for your rules, and other people’s rules — part of hunting is feeling comfortable with your tools and your strategies, and that’s going to vary hunter to hunter. I can’t use your rifle rule here in MA because rifles are prohibited, and that means I have to wait for a short, sure shot with a shotgun. I don’t use a bow at all because it scares the shit out of me.

    I will not judge those preferences, but I will judge other things — in fact, judging was the whole reason for writing the post. I flat-out believe McGraw was wrong, and that I am entitled to judge.

    Thanks for leaving a thoughtful, interesting comment. Those are my favorite kind.

  14. A couple of remarks on civilization and sustainability for Amanda and Melissa, to put an end to any lingering belief in my brilliance and debating skill.

    I would say that the grocery store, and the drug store, and the cable company, and the local electric utility, and all the innumerable miraculous services that permit us to satisfy wants and needs for minutes of work that on our own would take us days or months if we could satisfy them at all — I would say that these things *are* civilization. Civilization is exchange; it advances through specialization and the division of labor. Civilization sustains us. It is self-sufficiency that is not “sustainable.”

    I greatly admire Tamar and Kevin for their rural endeavors, but they are hobbyists, as they would be the first to tell you. Civilization permitted them to amass enough money in New York to make their Arcadia possible.

    A century ago 70% of full-time workers in America were in agriculture. Today it is 1%. Because of advances in agriculture alone (including the much-maligned factory farms) more than two-thirds of American workers do not have to worry about producing food and can instead do something else. Unfortunately that something else sometimes turns out to be philosophizing about hunting. Even so, how can this be regarded as anything but progress?

    • Ha, well I do have a background as an agricultural economist. Actually, you might me realize that my hunting hobby is actually the pinnacle of civilized. Only civilization supports people who have a hobby to seek out the best meat you can possibly obtain. But you miss one part of civilization- the surplus people who have more time than money, for whom opportunity cost is very low. These people, underemployed former mechanics and their ilk, join hobbyists in the forest.

      My family bought our land by making software, so I’m not exactly a primitivist. I’m quite happy to enjoy my hunted rabbit with some store-bought potatoes, since as far as I know, there is no health or flavor advantage in growing my own potatoes. Though I did hear about a rare variety from France…

      And when I talk about sustainability, I care mostly about the ecological health of my own land, not about some large-scale public policy endeavor. The agroforestry method allows me to harvest delicious food from my own land without damaging it very much at all. And actually with very little labor on my part since it’s not like I’m out there with a hoe during the growing season- I’m planting trees mostly and just waiting for them to grow.

      • Aaron, I’ll agree that specialization is the essence of civilization. I just wrote a magazine piece about the good that has come out of the fact that one 1% of us are feeding the other 99%. It means that we, the other 99% are free to become car mechanics or tax attorneys, thereby freeing people from *those* tedious jobs. Or, we can spend our time in the woods trying to shoot deer — which, as hobbyists, Kevin and I have chosen to do. You are correct.

        Melissa, I think we’re on the same page. I do all this because it seems like a prudent and constructive use of resources, and because I find it interesting. I’m emphatically not saving the planet. Now, about those potatoes …

        • Hoosier Girl says:

          Tamar, is there a link available for this article? (Sorry I am coming late to this conversation). Personally, I am troubled that only 1% of the nation feeds the 99% (and a good chunk of the rest of the world as well), so perhaps a positive article on this would help assuage my concerns a bit.

          I had a very strong reaction against Aaron’s contention that a civilized person gets her food at the grocery store. Why would I be less civilized for getting my meats and eggs at a local farm, foraging for morels, raspberries, blackberries and pawpaws, and growing a good portion of my own vegetables?

          Maybe I’ve just been reading too much Wendell Berry lately, but it can’t be a good thing that there is so much cultural destruction and brutal disdain, combined with destructive gov’t policies, heaped upon the farmer and his family, FORCING the traditional farmers off the land, and sucking the intellectual talent found in their children and grandchildren into the megalopolises like New York and Chicago.

          I just think back to a book like Diamond’s “Collapse,” where the artwork of the Easter Islanders got fancier and more imposing, up to the point where they chopped down their last tree. Likewise, is it possible to have a culture that is too stupid to live, where we celebrate the tax attorneys (spawned by the ridiculously ornate tax codes created by our gov’t Brahmins) and mechanics (many of whom have a hard time diagnosing anything nowadays without their computer systems) when the majority of them can’t even produce anything of intrinsic value, like a radish? (And not just to pick on tax attorneys–I work in financial services and help products that are equally abstract, often via tax attorneys). Or a book like “Tomatoland” which reveals how we get our nasty winter tomatoes, lacking in nutritional value, bathed in poisons and petroleum, and picked for us by veritable slaves in Florida.

          Specialization can be a force for good, but…when it comes to killing ourselves off by being overspecialized, I think it’s maybe better to be a rat than a panda. I can’t think of any other civilization where we have had quite so many useless lotus eaters who are incapable of producing, themselves, ANYTHING of tangible value, whether they are loading Whole Foods bags into their BMW in Fancytown or buying Ho Hos at Walmart with food stamps.

          Regarding Melissa’s comments on potatoes, I grew a french variety called “La Ratte” which is quite tasty, and I am certain it has a much higher nutritional value than those produced by agribusiness–read “The Botany of Desire” and “Fast Food Nation” for more one the goodies you are getting (or not) with conventional potatoes. They are cheap in more ways than one.

  15. I think it’s pretty cool that you’ve attracted a group of readers who can have an interesting and compelling conversation about an issue that would instantly provoke the text equivalent of thermonuclear war on most blogs.

    Pondering it a little more, and trying to be (marginally) more succinct, I think what I was getting at is that I think it is good for people to hunt. That’s Step 1. It is even better for them if they occasionally kill something, which I suppose would be Step 2. Once you get to Step 3, you get into all these complex moral and ethical issues wrapped around where you kill, when you kill, what you kill, what you kill with, and what you do with the carcass.

    I don’t feel comfortable passing judgement on any of that, because I know genuinely good people who feel differently about virtually every aspect of it. It’s deeply personal.

    Mostly I’m just glad they still hunt. Too many of us don’t.

  16. I think that using a modern, scoped, high power, large caliber rifle from a prepared blind set up by a local guide service, is hunting. So is waiting for that pesky deer that keeps raiding the garden, waiting with a firearm, a bow, or a lowly snare or pit trap.

    Hunting, for me, is gathering tools, locating prey, and choosing the right moment to use those tools.

    I think the big difference between primitive — bow or blackpowder — is that it keeps the tool from getting so slick, you can skimp on choosing the right moment, or the right setup. Adding to the “difficulty” is less about excitement or fun, though it can increase a sense of accomplishment if you succeed. than it is about requiring you to be more deeply immersed in learning your locale, the animal you are stalking, your tools for the hunt, and your preparation.

    I don’t see many shades of “honoring” the prey between a gesture of respect as you watch it move off, and a gesture of respect over the death of the animal. Both honor the spirit of the animal. The way you take the animal won’t matter to the animal. But if you deliberately act in dishonorable or disrespectful fashion, that will always harm your own spirit (i.e., indiscriminate poison, mass effect weapons, killing because you did last year and you won’t eat the kill).

    Taking varmints and predators that prey on my livestock, structures, or food stores, now, that isn’t hunting. My livestock animals and the food stored for them get my first priority.

  17. A very interesting discussion. Returned to my computer last night and found quite a flurry of insightful comments. If I may return for a moment to what “triggered” all this…. Were he to stop by, I wonder what Mr. McGraw make of our discussion. He’s probably a really nice guy. Unfortunately, all we know of him and his hunting is what we read in his story. Even more unfortunately, all most NYT readers will know about hunters and hunting is what they read in his story.

  18. Ken — I must be living right, to have so many people bother to read all this, and add their thoughts. I’ve been a print journalist for a very long time, and I can’t quite get over how excellent the whole interactive part of online is.

    I also thing that it’s good that people hunt, for a lot of reasons. And, like you, I wouldn’t go as far as to say people should. Some people don’t want to, and that’s just fine. But hunting is one of the things that helps keep in front of us the idea that meat is from actual animals. And that is good.

    Brian — I like your description of using primitive weapons. I think the process you describe is exactly what the challenge — and commensurate satisfaction — of hunting with them is.

    Being bubonically non-spiritual, I don’t describe hunting in exactly the same way you do, but I suspect our feelings about it are quite close. I believe that all sentient beings deserve good treatment and consideration (and there’s a discussion over at The Atlantic about how that can be compatible with killing them), and mistreatment or careless killing is very bad behavior.

    Al — Funny, Kevin and I were talking about that last night. Kevin remarked that, of all the people who commented here, not one defended McGraw. I think this is because he made choices that every responsible hunter would find fault with, but I agree that he’s probably a nice guy. Perhaps the real problem is with the level of familiarity with hunting at the NYTimes. It’s probable that no one responsible for deciding what goes on the op-ed page knows enough about hunting or guns to see that McGraw made a serious mistake. Had they, I’m guessing they would have printed someone else on the subject (Tovar, for instance). And you’re right about the disservice to Times readers. Hey, maybe they should all come here and read this!

    • Like you, Tamar, I’m impressed by the interactive, civil discussions that occur here, on Holly’s blog, and on mine.

      A couple things I will say in McGraw’s defense: First, I appreciate his mention of moral ambiguity, a topic I think deserves more nuanced discussion in general, particularly around food. Second, he’s honest about what happened with that particular doe.

      Whether that kind of scene is the best one to portray in the NYT is another question. When such a scene is portrayed, I personally want to know more about (1) how the hunter feels about what he or she has done and (2) whether they intend to do something to minimize the chances of repeating such an event in the future. There are a couple of very good pieces about similar scenes in the essay collection A HUNTER’S HEART.

  19. Accidental Mick says:

    I stipulate in advance that I totally ineligible to take part in this discussion. I live in the most densely populated part of South East England and hunting would require much travel and much money changing hands. However, I find that this, and other posts on this subject, totally absorbing.
    1. It seems that everybody here agrees at the fundamental level that the “target” must be treated with compasion (applause).
    2. I agree that we must all find rules of behaviour that we feel comfortable with in whatever task we take on provided it includes point #1.
    3. In the posts, it seems to me that, women agree with other women on the basic rules they apply and men agree with men. This is only in general terms of course and in the details there is healthy discussion everywhere.

    To me, it is fascinating that in hunting, as in every other human endevour, men and women approach from a slightly different direction. Isn’t it great to live in an interesting world.

  20. And this won’t surprise you a bit: Here are the responses to that piece in the Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/31/opinion/the-tragic-tale-of-the-deer-hunter.html?_r=1&emc=tnt&tntemail1=y